Rowan Atkinson has made a career out of playing bumbling characters that find themselves in embarrassing situations. One of the characters he is best known for playing is the British spy Johnny English (a spoof of James Bond), which first appeared on the big screen in the 2003 comedy film “Johnny English.”
Atkinson reprises the role in 2011’s “Johnny English Reborn,” in which Johnny has comes out of disgraced exile to stop a group of international terrorists from killing the premier of China. At the Los Angels press junket for “Johnny English,” Atkinson talked about the movie and why he chooses to do family-friendly comedy instead of raunchy humor.
Why have you made Johnny English movies family-friendly films?
I think most of the comedy I’ve done, whether it be Mr. Bean or Johnny English, has a family appeal. And this isn’t a deliberate construction on my part. I don’t go out of my way to appeal children or families or adults. I don’t go out of my way to appeal to anyone in particular. I just do what makes me laugh and what I believe there’s an audience out there for.
But whatever I do, it always ends up as surprisingly clean entertainment. It’s surprisingly non-rude, relatively non-adult. So much movie comedy now is very adult, in the tradition of “American Pie” or “The Hangover” or those kinds of movies. Those are all extremely good movies, but they’re not the kind of thing I naturally move toward. I tend not to do that kind of thing. So I’m well aware that Johnny English — like a lot of what I’ve done — has this very broad appeal. Whether you’re 8 or 80, I think there’s something you can get out of it.
There are a lot more gadgets and James Bond-influenced things in “Johnny English Reborn” than there was in the first “Johnny English” movie. Can you talk about that change?
We were more keen in our new “Johnny English” movie to give it a more credible plot than the first movie, which I think is a fairly ludicrous story. But now, I think we’ve got a plot that is more like a proper James Bond movie, more of a thriller plot. We wanted to make less a spy spoof and more of a comedy thriller— a story that you’re really engaged by and that you want to find out what happens next.
Generally, in comedy spoofs, you don’t care what happens next in the story. You just want the next joke. Whereas [in “Johnny English Reborn”], we wanted to make it a bit more serious, because I personally believe the more serious a context we can put a character like Johnny English, I think the funnier he becomes. I think the more his silliness sits in contrast with the seriousness and importance of the context then I think the better it is.
What was your favorite gadget in “Johnny English Reborn”?
I liked two things. I liked the idea [of a] registration car number plate that you can change at the press of a switch inside the car, particularly in Europe. I don’t know what it’s like here in the U.S., but I would find it extremely useful.
The other thing I quite liked was the wheelchair. I quite liked the high-speed wheelchair chase in the middle of the movie, which is a car chase, and the car in front is a wheelchair with a go-cart engine in it, which we manufactured especially for the movie. It went 35 or 45 miles an hour. And it was a hoot. And it was fantastic fun to drive. So those were my two favorite things.
Did that wheelchair corner on rails?
No, it didn’t corner on rails, which is why it was so scary, because when you start going over 30 miles an hour in a wheelchair, even when you’ve got little outriders … little wheels that went out, like a child’s bike, there’s a very high center of gravity. So if you get it wrong, you’re going to fall over in a big way.
[Says jokingly] How do you keep a spy mentality, when you’ve got “training wheels” on a wheelchair?
I found it very easy. It was quite terrifying enough without making it any more dangerous.
Why should people see “Johnny English Reborn”?
I think it’s a genuinely funny movie. I think there are several jokes in it that are of a very high quality. I think it’s just fun. And I think you enjoy the character. I think you’re with the character.
You so want Johnny English to succeed, even though he gets things wrong, even though he’s a bit smug, even though he’s a bit arrogant and far too over-confident, even though he’s got far too much self-regard, that’s the joke. In many ways, he’s quite a human. He’s quite a believable character, in that he wants to be James Bond, and he just keeps falling short. And we laugh at that. We enjoy the comedy of that.
How much of your personality is in Johnny English?
Oh, I don’t know. [She says jokingly] The bits that are me that are Johnny English, obviously, are his good bits. It’s the fact that he’s very charming. He’s very determined, actually. He’s very brave. He won’t stop until the job is done. He’s very courageous. He’s very tenacious.
[He says seriously] I’m not sure if I’m any of those things, but I’d like to be. Like Johnny English aspires to James Bond, I aspire to be the good parts of Johnny English. But I hope that I don’t share his self-delusion.
For more info: “Johnny English Reborn” website